Archive for September 14th, 2013

September 14, 2013

Bulletpoints: Madras Cafe



  • When I watched this film a couple of weeks ago, PVR Priya in Basant Lok was showing two films: Madras Cafe (obviously) and Chennai Express. Neither film is set in Chennai/Madras, though Madras Cafe does have a few scenes there.
  • Other people have written in much greater detail about the film’s glossing over huge swathes of the real political events it depicts-but-doesn’t-really (since changing everyone’s names/refusing to name certain characters is the best disclaimer). And I’m not confident enough of my own historical knowledge (and have too many Sri Lankan relatives) to add to this. For most of this post I’m going to pretend the whole story is fictional, but there are real-world consequences I can’t ignore.
  • Intent is not the best angle upon which to hinge one’s own critical position, but in some places I found myself wildly curious to know what the creators of this film were trying to do.
  • Was it, for example, their intention to create an Indian intelligence service that was quite this … unintelligent? The gormless but well meaning Vikram Singh (John Abraham) who only seems to know anything at all about the fraught political situation in Sri Lanka because he did his “homework”–his wife, who actually watches the news, at least seems to be aware that there’s a war going on. Perhaps she’d be better at his job than he is. The gormless but well meaning Siddharth Basu, who really ought to have stuck with Mastermind India–what are things coming to when T.V quizmasters are politicians? (*insert joke about Derek O’Brien*) The gormless but well meaning group of Indian government types who sit around a table and discuss the intervention of the country into the Sri Lankan situation, but apparently do not recognise the key figures in the war? All the way up to the gormless but well meaning ex-prime minister who seems to be useless at regarding warnings.
  • In the context of India’s 2014 elections I do wonder how this works. Well-meaning incompetence is pretty much the UPA’s electoral platform.
  • As a result of all this, Nargis Fakhri’s British-journalist-with-American-accent comes across as the most competent and well-informed person present. This isn’t saying much.
  • All of Fakhri and Abraham’s interactions go as follows. Abraham: please share your sources. Fakhri: I’m not sharing my sources, that would be bad journalism. Okay, here are my sources.
  • I’m also fascinated by the characters in the film and their apparent deification of not!Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi was assassinated in 1991–at the time I was very young and in another country. So I don’t remember mass mourning, and I don’t remember my parents being hugely affected by it (perhaps they were and I was too young to understand, but I remember what they were like when the Berlin wall came down).
  • Madras Cafe has its characters genuinely adore not!Gandhi. When his wife dies, Vikram Singh mourns appropriately and goes back to work. When his ex-PM dies, Vikram Singh quits his job, stops shaving, and begins to haunt a church in Kasauli. Siddharth Basu’s character’s wife is brought into the film for about a minute only to express shock at not!Gandhi’s death and ask what wrong poor, innocent not!Gandhi did that he deserved to die? It’s the same question that Vikram Singh asks upon the death of his wife.
  • Which makes me wonder if we’re supposed to see all of these characters, and by implication the nation itself, as widowed by not!Gandhi’s death.
  • What’s more embarrassing, Judi Dench reciting Tennyson in Skyfall, or John Abraham reciting Tagore’s “Where the mind is without fear” in Madras Cafe? Ans: Do not put people reciting poetry in movies. Especially do not do this if the only relevant poetry you know is something you were forced to recite in school. I was cringing.
  • Sinister white people are behind everything.
  • It is very prettily shot.
September 14, 2013

William Shakespeare and *Unknown Artist/s*, Titus Andronicus

There is no column this weekend–here is last weekend’s anyway.




Kate Bush’s song “The Sensual World” draws inspiration from the character Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. For years, Bush wanted to use the words from Molly’s famous soliloquy in the song, but the Joyce estate refused to grant her permission. Until 2011, the year before the copyright was due to expire, when the estate finally decided to “allow” the musician do something she would soon be able to do without their permission anyway.

Bush’s excellent song is just one example among many of classic works, particularly those out of copyright, being used to create more art. It’s how Alan Moore can create a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for example, or (this may not be a strong argument in favour of transformative works) we can read about Jane Austen characters battling the undead. It’s also how the famous science fiction author and bigot Orson Scott Card could rewrite Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a tract against homosexuality, but that is the cost of freedom, and it has certainly made me appreciate the original more.

The change can be as slight as adding new artwork to an edition of the book (since now any publisher is free to print it)—one of the most celebrated books of the last couple of years was a new edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland illustrated by the amazing Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. A recent series titled Pulp!: The Classics has chosen to reissue Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other “classic” works with wonderful pulp covers.

But sometimes the new contexts provided, the art or the cover design, seem completely inexplicable. Perhaps the publishers cannot afford to, or can’t be bothered to, come up with attractive and appropriate packaging for a book that, being a classic, will probably be bought by people for its title.  A favourite sport on the internet is the mockery of covers that, considering the well-known content of the books they enclose, make no sense. Last year readers expressed horror at a reissue of Anne of Green Gables that had chosen to depict Anne as an attractive blonde posed sexily against a hayrick. In a bookshop recently I came across a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina whose cover showed two people silhouetted against a vast (and lurid) sky filled with stars. Tolstoy may have appreciated this- the effect was vaguely science fictional, so that the plot seemed to take on almost a cosmic significance.

Sometimes the inappropriate cover, or terrible art, turns out to be just what the book requires. Such as my copy of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

At his best, Shakespeare’s a genius poet, at his worst he’s a talented hack with a great sense of humour. Titus Andronicus is a rather … divisive play. There’s mutilation and dismemberment, involuntary cannibalism, rape, murder, inappropriately flowery speeches, and occasional classical allusions, before everyone dies. It makes the ending of Hamlet look not only toned down and subtle, but quite cheerful as well.  I love the play, but then I’ve always been convinced that the whole thing’s a parody.

My first copy of the play was the creation of something called Rohan Book Company. We’re not told who the illustrators were, but they appear to have made an admirable commitment to giving the book popular appeal; they’ve chosen to dress Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in some hybrid of a fur bikini and a Wonder Woman costume. Restricted to black and white for their palette they can’t show us much blood, but there are enthusiastic depictions of swords being thrust through torsos and dismembered body parts being held up dramatically. There’s less of a commitment to basic human anatomy, but perhaps that only adds to its charm.

I’ve often wondered in the years since I read Titus Andronicus whether this edition has coloured my understanding of the play forever. Would I have thought it a terrible melodrama (or even a surprisingly meaningful one) had it come with better (or no) illustrations and an intelligent introduction? I’m not sure, but this is how it exists in my head now and I can’t regret it.